To find the last time McLaren was really beaten fair and square in a Grand Prix — as opposed to losing a Grand Prix, which is another matter altogether — you have to go back to Adelaide 1987. In motor racing, that’s an awful long time for anyone to be so dominant.
That explained a lot about the depth of feeling in the paddock at the Hungaroring after Nigel Mansell had scored the best victory of his career by taking the fight to McLaren and Williams, and winning the hard way.
McLaren lost to Ferrari at Monza last year, to the Prancing Horse again at Rio at the start of 1989, and to Williams in Canada, but each time it had been the top dog. In Hungary, that changed. It wasn’t a situation that was likely to last during the remaining races, but on a course renowned for bunching times, the Anglo-Japanese cars for once weren’t the pacesetters. Being McLarens, however, they still salvaged second and fourth places, in what for the team was A Bad Race. Anyone else in Formula One at present who says he wouldn’t be delighted to have his team score such a result is a liar.
Mansell had been optimistic all along about Hungary, which is why qualifying proved such a rude shock. Everyone and his dog had understeer, but the Briton’s Ferrari was worse than many and he was in big trouble. Things got so bad that the set-up was changed completely between Friday and Saturday, yet from ninth fastest he slipped to twelfth, his lowest grid position in years. At a circuit on which overtaking is damn near impossible, it seemed an insuperable handicap.
Mansell had one ace up his sleeve, however. The F1/89 felt so bad that it just didn’t work on qualifiers, so Nigel qualified on Goodyear’s softer C compound race tyres. On his way to arriving at that conclusion he gained more experience of running on the Cs and the harder Bs than anyone else in the place. Being Mansell, he parlayed that into a raceday advantage that he exploited fully.
If there was one delirious Ferrari driver, however, there was also another who was totally disgruntled: Gerhard Berger.
The Austrian hadn’t finished a race since Suzuka last October when he arrived in Budapest, a record of disaster that eclipsed even Chris Amon’s legendary ill-fortune. It was something the fickle Italian Press had been quick to publicise.
Gerhard also came to Hungary seething inwardly after team boss Cesare “Hollywood” Fiorio had given him a dressing down for holding up Mansell in Germany. Gerhard was beginning to realise how Michele Alboreto must have felt last season …
Throughout qualifying he was the faster, the better able to counter his Ferrari’s understeer by hurling it around at the usual lurid angles. Mercifully, with such a gripless surface, it was something spectators could also savour!
In the race, too, Gerhard was in fighting form, but even before the start he had cause for disquiet. In the morning warm-up his gearbox’s electro-hydraulic pressure had dropped, but rather than change the entire box, Ferrari’s mechanics only changed the ancillaries. Gerhard went to the line hurt that his chances appeared to merit such little concern, aware that he might yet again be fated to retire.
After four laps he had disposed of Alex Caffi’s Dallara, in which the Brescian had qualified a magnificent third, and latched on to Ayrton Senna’s tail as he chased energetically after Riccardo Patrese’s Williams. There he stayed for the first 28 of the 77 laps, before a lightning tyre stop on lap 29 dropped him behind Mansell and Caffi. Goodyear had wanted all its runners to start on Cs, and make stops. But where the Ferrari duo, Boutsen and most others had opted for them, Senna, Prost and Patrese went for the harder Bs.
At the time, Gerhard’s stop seemed canny. If he could come in early, get into his rhythm again quickly, he might just be in a position to capitalise if the others had to stop or found their harder compounds losing effectiveness. Instead, though, the stop was to be of greater assistance to Mansell, for Goodyear examined his discarded Cs and came to the conclusion they could have gone the distance. The message was swiftly radioed to Nigel, and Gerhard’s potential advantage became a time-wasting setback.
Mansell, meanwhile, had blown by Prost on lap 41 and was right on Senna’s tail.
The end for Gerhard came on lap 57, when the gearbox, as he had feared, went out of business. It happened lust in time for him to appreciate his team-mate’s stunning move on Senna.
Both the Briton and the Brazilian had overtaken Patrese by that point, and going into lap 58 came up behind Stefan Johansson’s Moneytron Onyx as they exited the right-hander at the bottom of the hill after the start. For the first time this corner was minus the little chicane that used to flood whenever it rained, and the new, faster layout suited Mansell perfectly.
Johansson had already been into the pits to have an awkward gearshift examined, and just as Senna closed on to his tail, the Onyx jumped out of fourth. Ayrton was right behind it, gaining as much of a tow as he dared. Mansell, sensing his tiny loss of momentum, blasted alongside after a sideways twitch to slow the Ferrari as it nearly rammed the McLaren, and just had sufficient momentum of his own to take the lead.
“All my overtaking moves were the sort I’d rather not think about,” he admitted (he passed four cars into the first corner alone), “but that one was the tightest!”
It worked to perfection, however, and though Senna came back at him, the Ferrari was equal to the task. Mansell punched in some quick laps, then a real flier on lap 66 which was the race’s fastest. That it was set no late was clear indication of just how kind John Barnard’s brilliant chassis was to its rubber.
Senna by then had no ammunition left in his armoury. All weekend McLaren had chased a handling imbalance. First the MP4/5s understeered. When that was dialled out, they oversteered.
What they also chased for most of the time was Riccardo Patrese. On Friday the Italian veteran, born again as a racer this year, had stunned everyone with a lap of 1 min 19.726sec which was a second and a quarter faster than anyone else could manage. After being blown away at Hockenheim, the Williams-Renault proved a perfect tool for the Hungaroring’s twists, at least when it was driven by Patrese. He and Patrick Head had found an excellent set-up that day, and for the rest of the weekend nobody else got close enough to topple him from the third pole of his 184-race career.
It would have been simplicity itself for him to fluff the start and become engulfed. After all, it isn’t every day that you start alongside Senna. But Riccardo didn’t fluff it. In fact, he out-Sennaed Senna on that opening lap, pulling out a 1.2-second margin by the time they completed the first two and a half miles.
When Senna pulled that back by the second it seemed the graffiti had been scrawled in large letters on the wall, but it was not so. Riccardo controlled the situation and led neatly for lap after lap. If Senna got a mite too close, no doubt exploiting his onboard mixture control for moments of extra richness and power, Renault did the same thing from the pits. Most of the time Riccardo ran lean, on “Click 1”, but every so often the richer “Click 2” was employed.
His was a beautiful drive, an indication of how well he has been performing this season, and as the race reached lap 50 the opening lap question began to take on even greater substance. Could Riccardo really win?
Two laps later the question was answered, as Senna stomped by into the lead. By lap 54 Mansell was second, and by the 55th Patrese was rolling to a halt just past the pits. A lump of metal debris had pierced his right-hand radiator, in a repeat of his Silverstone luck, and Renault’s Bernard Dudot had known the worst the moment the monitor revealed the alarming leap in water temperature.
Patrese walked slowly in. And if this emotional man cried as he joined his crew, he had earned the right to.
If Berger was an unhappy man after the race, so was Alain Prost, fourth behind Patrese’s lacklustre team-mate Boutsen who should have done better in the opening stages on his Cs and ended up third after a survivor’s race when an attacking drive might have reaped more. He had, after all, started fourth on the grid.
Prost had only been fifth on the grid, alongside Berger, and alarmed to find on race morning that an engine hesitation problem from Friday had returned in force. It was to plague him throughout the race, and was exacerbated by an intermittent fault with the unit cutting out.
If Mansell had had strong words with the stewards about the driving of newboy Jean Alesi in qualifying, Prost could be forgiven for harbouring uncharitable thoughts about Caffi and Cheever as they administered brutal chops to him going into turn one, the scene of the brilliant move he pulled on Senna last year. Instead, the Frenchman was feeling depressed about the atmosphere of isolation he sensed for the first time in Hungary.
When he ran wide on oil spewed from Patrese’s car just prior to its retirement, his visor became smeared. Worse still, his tyres picked up a lot of the rubber debris that lurked off line, and for the second year running he suffered the sort of tyre vibration that afflicted Senna and Mansell to a lesser degree. Replacements were the only answer for him, but once he’d resumed and suffered at the aggressive (but understandably charging) Cheever’s hands, Boutsen proved too far ahead to catch in the time left.
If Mansell, Patrese, Senna and Berger produced star performances, and Prost was hamstrung, Cheever and Arrows partner Warwick joined with Nannini and Alesi in scooping the other nominations. Life has been tough of late for the American, especially, since his non-qualification at Silverstone, but he is always a good racer and deserved better than fifth. Warwick, likewise, deserved better than his eventual tenth, having run ahead of Eddie until a stop to investigate strange handling. A wheel nut had loosened, and thereafter he played a doomed game of catch-up made all the more frustrating by the knowledge that he’d been closing on the leaders at the time of his stop.
Proving his raw speed yet again, Alesi qualified eleventh, just ahead of Mansell to the amusement of those who had heard of their Friday morning altercation when they disputed the same bit of road. However, when Martin Brundle hit the back of his Tyrrell on the opening lap its undertray was damaged and a tyre sustained a cut. After a stop for rectification Jean stormed back, and in the first few laps was easily the fastest man on the track until the handling deteriorated again.
Team-mate Palmer was yet again in the wars, shunting after brake failure in qualifying and then losing tenth place with an injection trumpet problem.
Nannini had been part of the train that developed in the wake of Patrese, Senna, Berger and Prost in the opening stages, sitting seventh but destroying his tyres in the dirty air. After a sensibly early stop he was charging back into contention, ahead of Boutsen, when his gear selectors broke and prevented engagement of first, third and fifth.
Likewise Caffi’s raceday hopes were dashed. Much was expected of Pirelli after its strong performance at Monaco, and it brought a revised tyre which was good enough to help Caffi to an excellent third-fastest qualifying time. Indeed, he only fell off the front row when Senna posted a late flier. Come the race, however, the advantage was firmly with Goodyear, and Alex could only take a back seat with an eventual seventh, some way behind Nelson Piquet’s reliable Lotus.
The Brabhams, stars at Monaco, struggled all weekend for grip, the Minardis flattered in qualifying only to deceive in the race, while the Goodyear-shod Marches looked set for charges in eighth and ninth places early on when both retired within a lap of one another to add yet another miserable chapter to the 1989 Leyton House story.
There was no misery for Mansell, though. Ever the realist, he played down chances of a late charge at the championship, firmly reiterating his view that 1989 is the foundation for 1990. Everyone knew that the nature of the Hungaroring played into Ferrari’s hands far more than would Spa or Monza, yet deep down they began to wonder. Then they remembered Honda’s new “Specification 5” V10 scheduled for introduction in Belgium, and how both its power and driveability had been enhanced, and began to get cynical again.
Still, it did everyone good to be reminded once again of what motor racing at the top level could — and should — be all about. Without doubt, the Hungarian Grand Prix was the best race so far in the current season, and Mansell a thoroughly deserving victor after a brilliantly judged performance.